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 Posted by ESPN Staff
Sep 11, 2007

U.S. unnerved by North Korean transition game

CHENGDU, China -- North Korea entered Tuesday's World Cup opener against the United States with a reputation as soccer ghosts, but it was flesh and blood aggression that pushed the United States into an uncomfortable position in Group B.

In the end, the United States didn't so much settle for a point in the 2-2 draw as escape with one, fortunate to leave on level footing with a team that put the Americans under siege in a way few other teams have since coach Greg Ryan took charge after the 2004 Olympics.

Despite playing hard throughout and gaining some measure of pride by rallying from the unfamiliar footing of a deficit, a potential quarterfinal showdown with Germany still dauntingly looms on the horizon should the team finish second in group play.

The North Koreans attacked from the outset in front of a partisan crowd of more than 35,000 on a rainy night in Chengdu, putting the United States on its heels with a barrage of early long balls and controlling the midfield throughout the game. Unlike the team that arrived at the World Cup four years ago with similar hype as an unknown sleeper, only to exit in the opening round after losing to the U.S. and Sweden, North Korea looked every bit the quick, precise and relentless specter of so many secondhand stories.

"I haven't defended that much in years," defender Cat Whitehill said after a long night.

From the moment the World Cup draw was announced in the spring, Ryan preached the virtues of North Korea, a team ranked fifth in the world despite infrequent trips abroad. His players echoed those sentiments as Tuesday neared, but even they were caught by surprise by the speed with which the North Koreans generated counterattacks and pressured the U.S. defense.

"I think we expected them to be just as great as they were," Heather O'Reilly said. "That transitional game, we were definitely expecting that. But I mean, in that area, they exceeded our expectations, just the pace that they got up the field."

In an effort to counter some of North Korea's attacking mind-set and midfield strength, Ryan pushed an extra body into the middle, opening the game in a 3-4-3 formation that shifted outside back Stephanie Lopez up to a midfield role. Ryan said he was pleased with the results, feeling the shift at least stalled the North Korean attack enough to limit most of their shots from outside the 18-yard box. But the expanded midfield still proved largely ineffective in denying North Korea possession.

"It changes dramatically," Whitehill said of a three-person back line. "With the three in the back, it's more of a marking-slash-sleeper formation in the back and hoping for the high pressure. We still got high pressure on them, which was great, but North Korea knew how to play out of it."

An injury to Abby Wambach that left the United States down a player for both of North Korea's goals, and the slick conditions that undoubtedly contributed to a soft goal slipping off the gloves of U.S. keeper Hope Solo, were the little things that defined the night. But the team's ability to dictate the terms of play will define the rest of the tournament.

Even through a double translation from Korean to Chinese to English, North Korean coach Kim Kwang-Min offered perhaps the best summation of the day.

"I think the U.S. team is the best team in the word," Kwang-Min said. "But today they didn't perform the maximum that they can."

North Korea had a lot to do with that, but the United States will need to regain control of the field in its remaining group games against Sweden and Nigeria if it wants to beat a team like Germany -- regardless of when and where that game might occur.

Player Ratings (scale 1-10):

Hope Solo, 5 -- Anyone who is already calling for her to be replaced after her mistake didn't watch the rest of the game. Nobody did more to settle the team during the opening barrage than Solo, who made the right decisions on balls and pursued them aggressively and athletically. The flub on the first goal obviously can't happen, but she did far more good than harm.

Abby Wambach, 5 -- She couldn't seem to get any service from the overwhelmed midfield for much of the game, leaving her out of the flow for long periods, although she almost scored with a header. But the first goal was classic Wambach, slipping past defenders and powering home a shot her team desperately needed.

Kristine Lilly, 6 -- The captain started slowly, a victim of North Korea's ability to keep the ball in the other half. But she pressed the attack in the latter stages of the first half and throughout the second half, directly setting up the first goal and indirectly setting up the second.

Heather O'Reilly, 7 -- O'Reilly was the team's most consistent offensive threat, justifying Ryan's decision to start her ahead of Lindsay Tarpley. She created chances throughout the game, from a strong cross that Lilly narrowly missed in the fourth minute, to the beautiful footwork to redirect a deflection home for the second goal.

Shannon Boxx, 3 -- The veteran came through with some big tackles late as North Korea came close to the third goal on several occasions, but she's the anchor of the midfield, and the midfield was not very good on this night. She wasn't able to use her size to her advantage, on the ground or in the air.

Carli Lloyd, 4 -- Lloyd looked tentative in the first half of her first World Cup appearance. She is a big part of the offense, but she can't do it if she's not shooting.

Lori Chalupny, 6 -- Along with Solo, she was the key to avoiding disaster in the opening minutes of the game, tracking back well on defense and creating some of the few early offensive forays that gave the defense a few seconds to breathe.

Stephanie Lopez, 3 -- She wasn't given much of a chance to succeed, asked to play out of position in her first World Cup game. At this point in her young career, she's much more confident and aggressive playing with the field in front of her as a back.

Christie Rampone, 8 -- The yellow card could be problematic for a team that isn't all that deep on defense, but Rampone was a rock from start to finish. Even in the rare instances when she got beat, she showed the recovery speed to quickly get back and avoid pulling others out of position to help.

Cat Whitehill, 5 -- Aside from a few shaky clearances and some less-than-ideal free kicks, at least by her standards, Whitehill held up well in the middle of the defense.

Kate Markgraf, 5 -- She certainly proved her fitness once and for all, playing a full 90 minutes in a more aggressive role than her regular spot in the middle. She wasn't a factor early, but she grew more and more effective as the game went on and others tired.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.